If you’ve spent a significant portion of your adult life thus far floating from one kind of diet to another, migrating from one lifestyle kick to the next extreme health fad, only to end up heavier (or less skinny) than what you had hoped to be by now, you aren’t alone.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), over 2.3 million Australians aged 15 years and over were on a diet in 2011-12. And to no one’s surprise, the ABS states that females were overrepresented in this group.
“By the time a woman is 45, she will have tried 61 diets,” says health law professor and writer, Timothy Caulfield, in episode two of The Truth About Your Health airing on SBS on Thursday 18 January at 8.35pm.
“We live in a society consumed by the idea of weight loss. It’s been a cultural obsession for a long time... An average woman spends 31 years of her life dieting. So when I say this is a cultural obsession, I mean it’s a cultural obsession!”
“By the time a woman is 45, she will have tried 61 diets.”
The idea of extreme dieting certainly isn’t anything new. Diets and health fads to rid the body of unwanted kilograms and inches have been around since ancient times. The modern Mediterranean diet is said to have descended from dietary mentions in Plato’s writings. More recently, in the 1960s, the meal replacement shake was all the rage, while diet pills had become so popular among women in the USA by 1968 that a story about its dangers made the cover of the January 26 issue of Life magazine.
These days, there’s no shortage of extreme diets from the Sleeping Beauty diet, Paleo diet, Atkins diet, and ‘eat right for your blood-type’ diet. Then there’s the French-inspired ‘air diet’ – promoted by a Dolce & Gabbana campaign featuring Madonna – where you consume nothing but air to lose weight (a non-diet diet that us laypeople just refer to as ‘hunger’).
“An average woman spends 31 years of her life dieting. So when I say this is a cultural obsession, I mean it’s a cultural obsession!”
As Caulfield tells viewers in The Truth About Your Health, new diets are constantly emerging, forever “pushing a cultural norm that we should all be concerned, all the time, about losing weight”.
“But is this a healthy approach to life?”
According to most medically qualified health experts, the answer is simple: no, it’s not. That’s because most diets don’t actually work – and by ‘work’ we mean 'fix' our weight issues. Sure, you might lose weight in the initial stages of your diet but various sources say that 95 per cent of people will have regained all the weight they have lost when dieting within two to five years.
“It’s not whether or not that diet will help you to lose weight but will it help you keep the weight off?” asks Professor of Medicine, and Chair in Obesity Research and Management at University of Alberta, US, Arya Sharma, who appears in documentary.
“That’s where all diets fail. Or you can say, that’s where all diets are equal.”
Part of the proof of these dieting failures can be seen by examining our current obesity rates: if the multiple diets constantly being promoted actually worked, would obesity be the global epidemic that it is?
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare statistics estimates that two-in-three Australian adults and one in four children aged two-to-17 were overweight or obese in 2014-15. World Health Organisation also records suggest that global obesity rates have nearly tripled since 1975, with more than 1.9 billion adults overweight and over 650 million classified as obese in 2016.
So why don’t diets work in the long-term?
The answer isn’t clear-cut: it depends on your body type, your genetics and what you have done to your body and metabolism during the diet to drop the kilos. But in general, experts suggest a few different reasons.
1. Depriving yourself of food may slow down your metabolism, causing you to gain weight after a diet when you return to a healthy eating pattern.
2. The food and exercise plan you were following while on a diet was not actually sustainable in the long-term (how long can you really last nibbling on a protein bar at social events?)
3. Your obesity might be caused by your genes or a medical issue, not poor diet or lifestyle choices. If there is a genetic or medical reason for your obesity, then you will need medical intervention to lose weight and keep it off, not a crash diet.
4. University of Sydney obesity expert, Dr Nick Fuller tells SBS that our body maintains a ‘set point’ weight influenced by our hormones, nutrition levels and food intake. That means you can lose weight in the short-term, but eventually your body will seek to return to its former (or greater) weight.
Dr Fuller and other academics suggest the only way to change your set point is to override it by losing weight slowly over a long period of time, doing lots of exercise and eating well.
Prof Sharma agrees. “The sustainability of weight loss is really the problem,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what the diet or exercise program you do is. You are always up against your body. You’re always [pushed back] to square one. Your body wants to keep the weight.”
If diets don’t work, how can we lose weight?
Caulfield says: “We need to reframe our thinking to have more of a focus on health and lifestyle, and less on extreme diets.”
Prof Sharma agrees and encourages people to exercise, eat well and life a life in moderation.
“Is losing weight and keeping it off impossible? No, its not. It’s possible," says Prof Sharma. "Is climbing to the top of Mount Everest impossible? No, its not: there’s a thousand guys who do it every year. But we aren’t just talking about climbing to the top of Everest. No, you are going to climb to the top of Everest and live there.
“…If you eat healthier, you do physical activity and sleep better, and feel better about yourself, you will be 100 per cent better than what you are now, even if you don’t drop a single pound.”
Watch new health documentary series, The Truth About Your Health, airing every Thursday night on SBS at 8.35pm from 11 January. Each episode will be available to watch on SBS On Demand after broadcast.